Posted Thursday morning, November 24, 2016. Happy Thanksgiving!
Eddie Redmanye as fantastic beast wrangler and wizard Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the first in a series of movies intended to be to the Harry Potter series what Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy is to his Lord of the Rings: prequels that deepen and expand our understanding of the originals, provide enlightening if not necessary background, but stand on their own and tell exciting and involving adventure tales of their own.
But, although played with his now trademark charming quirkiness and brilliant self-torturing physical dexterity by Eddie Redmayne, as likable underdog heroes go, fantastic beast wrangler Newt Scamender is no Bilbo Baggins and Fantastic Beasts doesn’t have a story of its own to tell.
And the most fantastic beast in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is of the human variety: A fervent Prohibitionist United States Senator from the state of New York.
Fantastic Beasts is set in New York City in 1926 and the idea that in 1926 New York would be sending a Dry to the Senate---back to the Senate. He’s the incumbent.--- is pretty much a matter of pure fantasy. Beside the fact that Prohibition was never popular (or diligently enforced) in New York, it was growing increasingly unpopular across the whole country. So much so that Al Smith, the Irish Catholic Democratic incumbent governor of New York, felt he could run for President in 1928 as Wet.
Smith lost, but his loss is generally attributed to anti-Catholicism (although Prohibition was implicitly anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant in effect and intent, so there’s a possible relation). Meanwhile, back home in New York, in the actual Senate election of 1926, liberal Democrat Robert Wagner, who would become one of the strongest champions of the New Deal in Congress, was on his way to defeating the Republican incumbent, James W. Wadsworth, conservative who opposed Prohibition (on good conservative grounds: it was federal government intrusion into decisions best left to the states and individuals.) There’s no evidence that dark forces affected the outcome of the election.
You’re probably asking what any of this has to do with the movie? I’ll tell you. Pretty much nothing. But then neither does the character of the Prohibitionist senator. Nor does his doting newspaper publisher father. Nor his jealous younger brother.
The senator’s murder by mysterious magical forces serves the plot in it might be the flashpoint setting of a war between the wizard and human worlds. But for that purpose the victim could have been any generic prominent public figure whose gruesome death before a large crowd wouldn’t be easy to cover up. His particular politics or his personality or his backstory don’t matter to that end.
But director David Yates and J.K. Rowling, who wrote the screenplay, give us all three before they kill him off.They spend what seems like an inordinate amount of screen time developing him and his father and brother as characters and laying out their dysfunctional family dynamic only to put their subplot aside just about as soon as he’s dead. They forget about the dead senator and push his father and brother so far into the background that they become just faces in the crowd at the end. Which raises a serious question.
What’s the point of their being in the movie at all?
And it looks like the answer to that will be given in the next movie.
And that’s one of the things wrong with this movie.
An awful lot of screen time is devoted to setting up Fantastic Beasts 2. Which makes most of Fantastic Beasts 1’s storyline exposition. That’s really a way of saying there is no storyline. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them doesn’t tell a story. It sets us up to hear one.
What it has instead of a story is a string of comic mini-adventures in which Newt tracks down and tries to re-capture the fantastically mischief-making fantastic beasts that have escaped from his Tardis-like magic suitcase and a mystery involving the senator’s death for him and his new human friends to solve. Which is a fun but doesn’t get him or us anywhere in the end.
It’s as if Peter Jackson had decided to devote most of An Unexpected Journey to just getting Bilbo out of Bag’s End, interspersing the antics in the Shire with scenes of the elves at Rivendell talking ominously about what the Necromancer might be up to, with a pointless side-trip to Dale for a scene detailing the internal politics of Lake-town thrown in.
Now, however you feel about The Hobbit movies---I liked all three, but each one could have used some tightening and I really think Jackson made a hash of the scenes with Smaug---An Unexpected Journey did get right down to the business of establishing Bilbo as a hero and included the scene most important in leading us into The Lord of the Rings.
Despite his awkwardness, Newt has heroic qualities and can even look the part, when he stands up straight and looks people as directly in the eye as he does his fantastic beasts. In the heat of a chase, he can even be a bit of a swashbuckler. And we suspect his special studies have given him the type of surprising powers that all misfits, weirdos, and easily underestimated characters in movies and fairy tales can call on in moments of dire distress. No doubt his knowledge of supernatural history and his skill as a fantastic beast whisperer will come into play down the line. But in Fantastic Beasts, Newt is a hero on a small scale. He’s the hero of his own little misadventure, and it’s hard to see how he can be the hero of the larger and grander adventure to come. In fact, we know he won’t be. We know who will be.
Dumbledore is only mentioned in Fantastic Beasts but his presence looms large because the presence of his antagonist and the adventure’s main villain also looms large.
Although Fantastic Beasts doesn’t get that story underway on screen, there are enough hints and allusions and foreshadowings to let us know that it is underway off screen and Gellert Grindelwald is hard at work---somewhere---on his plan to bring the whole non-magic world and that part of the wizarding world that isn’t made up of pure-bloods like himself under his tyrannical sway.
As fans know, Grindelwald is the terrifyingly powerful dark wizard who, when they were both young, enchanted, possibly seduced, and came close to corrupting Albus Dumbledore. So we know where this new series is headed. It’s going to be about the battle of wills and wits between Grindelwald and Dumbledore that climaxes in their epic three-hour duel.
This means that there’s a possibility that Tom Riddle’s transformation into Voldemort will be incorporated into the coming sequels, either as a part of the main story arc or as a major subplot. So there are going to be three characters more important than Newt to the overall saga.
Newt’s misadventure in New York is pretty much an aside to that larger story, but he’s not necessarily an ancillary character. I just can’t see him as a main character. What I see him as in the romantic hero of the tragic love story that’s a subplot to the larger story, and that romance at least gets a bit more of a start in Fantastic Beasts.
That explains Newt’s mopiness and diffidence when he’s around the character we’d expect to be his love interest in this one, a former auror demoted to a minor clerkship in the basement of the offices of the Magical Congress of the United States of America for her overzealousness in pursuit of practitioners of dark magic named Tina Goldstein and played by Katherine Waterston. Newt is still carrying a torch for his Hogwarts sweetheart, Leta Lestrange.
Yep. Of that Lestrange family.
Newt has landed in New York on his way to Arizona to release one of his fantastic beasts back into the wild. The escape of some of the other beasts and his attempts to round them back up have gotten him in deep trouble with the Magical Congress. He and Tina have to team up to solve the mystery of the senator’s murder and the expected romance...does not ensue.
Theirs is a love that cannot be. Not yet. It would get in the way of whatever is in store for Newt and Leta in the next movie. (Leta will be played by Zoe Kravitz. Is played. She appears in Fantastic Beasts but in almost literally a cameo, in the moving photograph Newt carries in his magic suitcase.) So Newt resists his growing feelings for Tina out of loyalty to Leta and Tina resists her growing feelings for Newt out of a sense of duty. They do too good a job of resisting. Which leaves us with a pair of romantic leads who don’t get to be particularly romantic.
Fortunately, for those of us who like a bit of romance with our action and adventure, we have Tina’s flapper with a heart of gold sister Queenie and a canning factory worker named Jacob Kowalski whose dreams of owning his own bakery have caused him to fall into cahoots with Newt. (A bank and one of Newt’s fantastic beasts, a little kleptomanic with a special fondness for shiny objects like coins and jewelry, are involved.) Jacob is a Muggle or, as muggles are known in the good old US of A a No-Maj, short for “No Magic”---we Yanks are brusque and to the point and have no poetry in our souls, donchewknow---but he and Queenie are drawn together by their mutual appreciation of pastry. Queenie is a witch like her sister but her favorite way to put her magic to use is to help her with her baking.
Jacob is played Dan Fogler. Queenie by Alison Sudol. Fogler is one of those chubby clowns in the tradition of Oliver Hardy, Lou Costello, Jackie Gleason, and Kevin James whose physical genius is their ability to move with a grace and agility their bodies don’t seem built to achieve. The comedy is not at the expense of their being fat but in their being able to move like Errol Flynn or Gene Kelly when they need to and like Charlie Chaplin at most other times. Fogler gives Jacob a self-deprecating soulfulness but also the confident toughness of a working man an former soldier who knows his limitations, mental and physical, but also knows that he’s overcome them in the past and so it’s worth a shot to try to overcome them again. Studol, channeling Marilyn Monroe as Sugar in Some Like It Hot, takes what’s in outline a stereotype---the airheaded sexpot who’s smarter than she looks---and turns her into a comic heroine, resourceful, courageous, quick witted, without letting go of the stereotype. Queenie’s intelligence isn’t meant to come as a surprise. It’s the natural extension of her good heart and sensitive nature. Queenie is funny because she’s not funny. Sudol and Folger are matched in that way. They’re both able to pull off what their outward appearances say they shouldn’t be able to pull off. He moves like a hero, she thinks like one. Individually, each is a delight to watch. Together they’re a joy.
The only real joy in the movie, as it turns out, except for the antics of Newt’s mischievous beasts.
Fantastic Beasts is actually pretty grim. Not surprising considering the story it’s setting up.
Apparently things are as dire in the wizarding world of 1926 as they will be in the 1970s in the years just before Harry’s to be born. (In the books Harry’s birthday is July 31, 1980), and David Yates has directed accordingly. In look, tone, and mood, Yates has tied Fantastic Beasts in with the four Potter films he directed, the last four of the series. That means, among other things, don’t expect a bright color palette.
But even within the limits of its own plot, Fantastic Beasts is a dark and somber film. Just about every moment, including the ones featuring Newt’s menagerie on the loose, is shadowed by gloom and dread. The American wizarding world is nowhere near as homey, warm, and cheering as what we've seen of its British counterpart in the Harry Potter films. Even in the later movies there were still snug little islands of comfort and some semblance of security. At the end of Diagon Alley was a bright and welcoming pub. Fantastic Beasts takes us to a speakeasy, the lowest of low dives, presided over by a cigar chomping goblin gangster played by a CGI-ed over Ron Perlman with no mitigation of the goblin's malice, cynicism, or the sadistic amusement he gets from being a criminal with the power to hurt and disappoint people who come to him for help.
New York City in 1926 is dreary, gray, empty, and listless, as if the Depression has arrived three years early. The Congress of Magic seems to function more like the Kremlin than like the Ministry of Magic. The President is imperious and humorless and has no problems sentencing people to death without a trial and no matter the extenuating circumstances of their alleged crimes. And the mystery Newt and Tina set out to solve, besides centering around a hideous murder, involves a case of child abuse. But at least the villain is intriguing.
Grim and sinister, of course, but intriguing.
He's played by Colin Farrell with saturnine charm and a seductiveness that suggests Farrell had recently seen Frank Langella's Dracula and decided to turn the part into an audition for a remake.
I hope somebody does it, makes the remake.
It’s probably clear I was disappointed by Fantastic Beasts. But I still recommend it, to Potter fans, at any rate.
Like I said, it doesn’t do the job of getting the series main story arc underway. But it does lay important groundwork. And while I can’t say what role Newt is going to play, he’s a fun and interesting character, thanks to Redmayne, and Redmayne is always worth the price of admission. And some of Newt’s fantastic beasts are truly fantastic.
Then there’s Studol and Fogler.
It needs to be mentioned that in the United States, wizards and witches are not allowed to marry no-majes. Newt considers this a barbaric policy and I expect it will figure in the future movies.
At least, it had better.
They’d better be planning to bring Queenie and Jacob back.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, directed by David Yates, written by J.K. Rowling. Starring Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Colin Farrell, Dan Fogler, Alison Studol, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Ron Perlman, Jon Voight, and Carmen Ejogo. Rated PG-13. Now in theaters.